Federal government apologizes to Baffin Inuit for sled dog killings, forced relocations

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Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett delivers an apology to Inuit for forced relocations and the death of Inuit sled dogs, on Wednesday at Iqaluit’s Frobisher Inn. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett gave a wide-ranging apology to Inuit of Baffin Island in Iqaluit on Wednesday. 

“We failed to provide you with proper housing, adequate medical care, education, economic viability and jobs. We took away your independence by imposing our own priorities and forcing you to survive in a difficult environment and in locations that were not of your choosing, nor your traditional home,” Bennett said in the apology.

The apology is the first step in the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s (QIA’s) action plan to move forward from the wrongs done to Inuit by the government of Canada from 1950 to 1975. 

The QIA represents Inuit who live mainly on Baffin Island. It flew in 40 elders from across Nunavut’s Qikiqtaaluk region — from Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island, to Sanikiluaq in Hudson Bay — to hear the apology. 

From 2007 to 2010, the association gathered interviews from 350 Inuit during the Qikiqtani Truth Commission and compiled them in a report

The commission was set up in response to an RCMP investigation that found there was no conspiracy by police to kill Inuit sled dogs, called qimmiit in Inuktitut, but its findings grew to capture the larger picture of hardships faced by Inuit. 

A packed crowd listens to Bennett deliver the federal government’s apology to Inuit on Wednesday. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Forced relocations

Interviewees spoke about how they were forcibly relocated from their seasonal camps into permanent settlements. 

In the apology, Bennett highlighted Emily Takatak’s story. Takatak said she wasn’t told why she was being moved or if she would be able to return to her home. 

She couldn’t take any of her possessions with her, so she couldn’t bring the things she needed to clothe or properly care for her children. She later found out that her belongings were burned by officials. 

Her story is similar to many who were relocated from camps in Dundas Harbour, South Camp, Paallavvik and Kivitoo. 

Once in these new communities, the government programs for Inuit were misguided and inadequate, which led to hunger, disease and cultural assimilation. 

This archive photo shows the people of Kivitoo. When they returned following a forced relocation, they found that all their belongings had been burned by the RCMP. (imagineNATIVE)

Killing of Inuit sled dogs 

Bennett also acknowledged Canada’s “participation in the processes that resulted in the loss of qimmiit, which were key to your culture, survival, and community health.” 

During the turbulent period covered by the commission, thousands of qimmiit were killed and many more died. 

Inuit travel by dog team, and the commission investigated whether there was a “dog slaughter” conspiracy in order to restrict the movement of Inuit. 

It found there was no conspiracy, but the dramatic decline in qimmiit numbers “has become a flashpoint in Inuit memories: of the changes imposed on their lives by outsiders; and of the challenges to their … identity as hunters and providers,” according to a summary of the report. 

The dogs were shot by police and hunters, died from disease, or were abandoned by owners due to forced relocations. They were gradually replaced by snowmobiles.

The Qikiqtani Truth Commission looked into the widespread deaths of Inuit sled dogs, or qimmiit, during the settlement era and found it went on too long to be a ‘secret plan or conspiracy’ from the government. (Qikiqtani Truth Commission/Library and Archives Canada)

Moving forward 

QIA president PJ Akeeagok accepted Bennett’s apology on behalf of the Inuit his association represents. 

“Everybody who experienced this directly or indirectly still holds the hurt that they went through as a family. So I don’t think this is meant to say: ‘OK. There’s an apology. Let’s move on.’ It really allows us to be able to acknowledge what happened, to be able to plan as Inuit on what our next steps are,” Akeeagok told CBC. 

The next steps will come in the form of a memorandum of understanding that QIA and the government of Canada signed at the event Wednesday.

“We will reconcile past wrongs by celebrating your communities, honouring your culture, respecting your language, and recognizing the ongoing contribution of Inuit to Canada,” Bennett said. 

QIA has received $20 million from the government of Canada to develop healing programs, Inuit governance programs and cultural and language revitalization projects. 

Akeeagok says because the money was just finalized the exact programs are still being developed, but $15 million will go into the organization’s legacy fund to provide for the future, while $5 million will be used right away. 

Of that, $700,000 will go to the Nunavut Quest dog sled race — $100,000 a year for the next seven years. Akeeagok was in Arctic Bay as the race finished this spring. 

“To feel the excitement and to feel the strength of the culture and the strength of what qimmiit means to Inuit is powerful,” he said.

This is the third federal apology to Nunavut Inuit this year. In January, Bennett delivered an apology for the forced relocation of Ahiarmiut Inuit. In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for historical mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis.

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